Salvific Suffering: Making Suffering Useful

Field of Red Flowers at Sunrise

“Job opened his mouth and cursed the day.”  That is how our first reading opens today.  Job cursed his day—the circumstances of his life—but he did not curse God or himself.  Job cried out to God, family, and friends in ways that faced his pain, but which did not lead him to sin.  In his great misery Job shows us how to process trauma and trouble when it comes into our lives.  Job shows us how to make the experience of suffering useful: salvific suffering

Suffering useful?  How could that be?  That suffering CAN BE useful is part of our Catholic faith. Saint Pope John Paul II called this kind of suffering “salvific suffering.”  He wrote a beautiful Apostolic Letter about this suffering in 1984.  Salvifici Dolores (On the Meaning of Christian Suffering) will be discussed later in this reflection, but first let’s get a picture of where Job is.

In the second chapter of Job (skipped in the mass readings) Job’s troubles multiply.  Satan (the power of evil in the world) had already destroyed Job’s possessions and family.  Now Job’s body is covered with “malignant ulcers from the sole of his foot to the top of his head.” Either as mortification or to relieve the itching and pain, Job scrapes his sores and sits in ashes.

As he sits alone in the ashes, three of his friends come to visit him “to offer sympathy and consolation.”  When they catch sight of him, they are repulsed and appalled at what they see.  Nonetheless, they are his friends, so they come and sit down with him for seven days.  In those seven days, no one says anything.

Job finally breaks the silence with the great lament we hear today:  “Perish the day on which I was born…why did I not perish at birth?…why did I suck at the breasts…why is…life given to the bitter in spirit?  They wait for death and it comes not; they search for it…rejoice in it exceedingly, and are glad when they reach the grave:  those whose path is hidden from them, and whom God has hemmed in!

“Into every life there comes at least two or three times of great trouble and sorrow.”  I have always remembered those words in one of Fr. Keller’s homilies more than twenty years ago when great troubles came into my life. They were comforting words, because I could see that others around me had had great troubles and sorrow.  It was comforting to know that it was simply my turn to experience great troubles and sorrow.  It fostered hope in me that my great troubles would not last forever.

I remember driving home from work one night during that time and “cursing the day.”   “God,” I screamed, “I believe you love me, because you love everybody, but I do not feel it.  I do not see it.  I do not know it.  I only believe it because the Bible says so.  Where are you, God?   Help me!”

Looking back, I believe I was being invited into salvific suffering. (I did not take life and God up on that offer at that time.) Richard Rohr, in his book The Naked Now: Learning to See at the Mystics See, makes an interesting statement.  He says, “Only love and suffering  are strong enough to break down our usual ego defenses, crush our dual thinking, and open us up to Mystery….When you are inside of great love and great suffering, you have a much stronger possibility of surrendering your ego controls and opening up to the whole field of life.” (p 122-123)  He makes the point we all run toward the letting go of great love.  We relish in how it opens us.

Suffering changes and challenges us in different ways.  It forces us to let go.  We do not run toward it.  But we can see it as an invitation.  As we sit like Job in an ash pit of trauma or trouble, we can let suffering do its work on us.  We can let it force us into different ways of seeing and thinking.  We can let it bring us closer to God as those things we have depended on are shown to be deficient or as they are taken away.  We can let ourselves be carried by the Holy Spirit because our usual ways of being and doing fail us.

We can be transformed.  We can let go and let God.  Rohr makes a serious statement, “if you do not transform your pain, you will surely transmit it to those around you and even to the next generation.” (p 125)  In prayer circles these days there is much talk about “intergenerational healing” of trauma.  This is a way of doing healing prayer that lifts patterns in families of trauma that have crippled people for generations.

It is very important to note that God did not inflict the troubles on Job.  God “permitted” Satan to put Job to the test.  God stopped protecting Job from evils in the world, but God did not inflict them.  Much suffering comes from sin—not only our own sins, but the sins of others in our families or communities, and the sins in the world.  God does not cause sin, but he does permit it.  It is a consequence of human freedom and human free will.

What do we do with suffering to make it transformative and salvific?  We can curse the day as Job does: we can cry out to God and others in our pain.  Feelings once expressed are free to change.

But like Job, we must not curse God:  we must not turn away from God or give up on him.  For it is in keeping close to God that suffering can transform us—and even the evil in the world which causes it. By staying close to God, we can make suffering useful—salvific.

I honestly can’t explain salvific suffering beyond that it is joining our sufferings to Christ’s sufferings in a spirit of love and freedom. This joining transforms us–even though it does not take away our suffering.  I understand that Christ made a gift of his suffering to save us.  He then comes to be with us in our suffering–transforming our suffering to give us joy along with the pain.  This joy may come from our experience of love with others in our suffering, our closeness to God, our understanding of our suffering, or simply from awareness that God can use our suffering to bring about good.

Christ suffered his passion, died, and rose from the dead.  In that action he saved us from the effects of the evils of suffering, especially the suffering of death and its grief.  He overcame it. Once and for all.

Nonetheless, today, God and our Church call us to let go and let God sit with us in our ashes.  Saint Pope John Paul II begins Salvifici Dolores with this statement from St. Paul  “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” (Colossians 1:24)  The pope’s letter uses many references in scripture, including Job, to show how the suffering of Christ was necessary to build the Kingdom of God.  Our joining our sufferings to his continues to accomplish that Kingdom. It helps by maturing us as we let go and let God, and by enabling us to influence family and friends as Job did.

In this reflection I do not mean to imply that I understand the mystery of suffering beyond the bare outlines, nor that I fully embrace it.  Yet it fascinates me.  I see that to the extent that I can fully and willingly enter into the Mystery of Suffering, I can stop the destructive power of suffering.  I can see God’s “hemming me in” as a boundary of safety.

Prayer:

Lord, I thank you first that today I am not in a time of great trouble and sorrow.  I thank you that you were patient with me when I was there and “cursed the day”.  I ask you today to lead me gently in understanding the Mystery of Suffering.  Give me the capacity today to sit with those who suffer.  Let me enter with love into their chaos to bring your mercy.  Help me be transformed as I stay close to them.  And, when my time to suffer comes again, help me let go and let God Let my suffering be salvific—let it be part of bringing your Kingdom to earth.  Amen.

Link to Today’s Readings:  from Job 3, Psalm 88, Luke 9: 51-56.

Link to Saint Pope John Paul II’s Salvifici Dolores

About the Author

Mary Ortwein lives in Frankfort, Kentucky in the US. Her time is divided between volunteer work at her home parish, Good Shepherd, and supervision in a non-profit mental health agency. In her writing Mary combines learning from her study of prayer and theology and learning from her practical work experience. At different times in her life Mary has been an elementary and college teacher, a full-time wife and mother, founder of prolife service agencies, an in-home family therapist, and a writer of relationship and mental health curriculum. The mental health agency Mary currently directs focuses on training young professionals and providing mental health services to those who otherwise might not have access to them. In her parish Mary works in Respect Life, ministry to the homebound and elderly, evangelization, and is a member of a very active prayer group. A convert to Catholicism in 1969, Mary has not always been strong in the practice of her faith. After a re-conversion in 2010 she earned a theology degree from St. Meinrad School of Theology in 2015. She now looks for ways to foster her own faith and the faith of others.

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9 Comments

  1. Thank Mary Ortwein,

    This will serve us as an eye opener in how to dealt the suffering and put it into love, like Job he did not cursed God but instead embraced the suffering into salvific – salvation….

    More blessings in your way…..

  2. You do not understand suffering, yet you say a lot about it. And you say it is best to accept it, and use it to our favor. How strange. In all other matters we are counseled to gather strength, push back, and overcome. God has given the devil powers nearly equal to His own. The devil inflicts pain and suffering – and we are to accept it? Think of the many people close to Job who suffered terribly and were sacrificed, so that a point could be made? I say we are not yet even close to enlightenment regarding Job and our own personal travails.

  3. Hi, Jack,

    One of the characteristics of Catholic faith and culture which is sometimes forgotten in our modern world is that the Catholic faith encourages us to accept both suffering and good things in our lives. So we offer up our sufferings to “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24) We also offer up good times of happiness. We celebrate! Our good times, filled with love and joy, can also build up the Kingdom of God. We ask God to help us when we need to strive. We do not so much see even the striving as coming from ourselves.

    That striving, facing life with sheer willpower, comes more from Protestant theology, and, today, from humanism. I did not realize how much I had been influenced by those ideas from my childhood until recently. I must admit, there is a part of me that likes the idea it is up to me–if I strive enough I will overcome evil. But our Catholic faith teaches otherwise. We give our wills up to God. God chooses what to do with them. What God chooses is always good–but God’s good includes suffering. He chose it for Himself as a part of how He saves us from evil and sin. God didn’t choose ONLY suffering for Himself, nor does He choose ONLY suffering for us. Jesus taught, he ate and drank with both friends and sinners, he journeyed with good friends, he healed, he debated, he lived in a normal family. Through all those pleasant and love-filled actions He brought God’s life and love into the world. But then, He submitted Himself to suffering and death on a cross–not for the sake of suffering, but so He could over come (and let us see Him overcome) the worst of suffering and evil–humiliation, injustice, abandonment, physical pain, and death. Then He rose from the dead. The rising shows the suffering is not the important part.

    You are correct that I do not understand suffering or how all this works. I have a thousand questions. But I have seen it work in my life and in the lives of others. I take it on faith.

    Thank you for writing and for your seeking. I encourage you to read Salvifici Dolores.
    Mary Ortwein

  4. Hey Mary,

    Thought provoking reflection, I liked it.

    Reminds me of a line from a song:

    “Bad times make the good times better.”

    Let us appreciate how really blessed we are.

    Mark

  5. I’ve never been too fond of the cross idea, but the hymn “Most Jesus bear the cross alone & all the world go free” sparks a desire in me to join my friend who is hurting & feeling abandoned. Holy Spirit come to our aid, grant us the grace to stand with Mary at the foot of the cross. Like the bond formed between solidiers that fight together in the trenches of war, that’s how we come to know the worth of our relationships. Grant us Lord Jesus a passionate heart that follows & trusts in You, cast Your Heavenly Light upon us that we know Your Most Holy Will for us & do it joyfully.

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